What Art Is:
The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand

by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi

Excerpts from Introduction

"Early in the twentieth century, for the first time in history, works purporting to be art were created that were not, in fact, art at all--bearing little or no resemblance to the painting, sculpture, literature, music, or dance that had come before. Whereas art had always integrated and made sense of human experience, this new work was invariably fragmented, disorienting, and unintelligible, often intentionally so. In many respects, it was more akin to madness, or to fraud, than to art.

"Such work did not lack its critics. In a remarkably short time, however, new forms such as abstract painting and sculpture, and 'experimental' work in the other arts, gained virtually complete acceptance among members of the arts establishment. By the end of the century, most critics and scholars had come to regard the legitimacy of every conceivable new form of art as beyond question, while 'traditional' contemporary work was relegated to nearly total neglect--a trend that has continued unabated into the new millennium.

"As increasingly bizarre alleged art forms have proliferated at a dizzying rate, so has a body of impenetrable critical and scholarly literature professing to explain and justify them. Nonetheless, a substantial segment of the public, even among those repeatedly exposed to this work and to the arguments on its behalf, have failed to embrace it. While some merely express confusion and frustration, others are skeptical that there is anything in it to be understood or appreciated, and still others reject it outright, considering it beyond the pale of art. In the controversy that has ensued between experts and the public on this issue, we maintain that the ordinary person's view, based as it is largely on common sense, is the correct one. A principal goal of this book is to provide that common-sense view with the theoretical justification it warrants."

"While Ayn Rand retains the traditional classification of art as well as the idea that the arts are essentially mimetic in nature she rejects the traditional view that the primary purpose of art is to afford pleasure and convey value through the creation of beauty, which she does not regard as a defining attribute. In her view, the primary purpose of art is much broader: it is the meaningful objectification of whatever is metaphysically important to man. For Rand, every art work whether of painting, sculpture, literature, music, or dance is a 'selective re-creation of reality' that serves to objectify, in an integrated form, significant aspects of its creator's basic 'sense of life.'

"Further, Rand holds that the distinctive character of each of the major branches of art derives from--is determined by--a specific mode of human perception and cognition. As a consequence, she argues that, technological innovations notwithstanding, no truly new categories of art are possible, only recombinations and variants of the primary forms which have existed since prehistory.

"According to Rand, art serves a vital psychological need that is at once cognitive and emotional. Only through art, in her view, can man summon his values into full conscious focus, with the clarity and emotional immediacy of direct perception. For Rand, then, art is a unique means of integrating the physical and psychological aspects of human existence. Thus she not only identifies what art is, in terms of essential characteristics, she also provides an enriched appreciation of the importance of art in human life. Moreover, in so doing, she makes clear why much of what the artworld has promoted as the art of the past hundred years is, by objective standards, a perversion of the very concept."

© Copyright 2000 by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi.